As we resume posts here after a hiatus, we pause to remember a signal event in 2018 for fans of Mertz/Peters/Michaels — and in this case for fans of Joan Hess as well. We offer this post now also to honor the organization Malice Domestic, founded to “celebrate the traditional mystery, books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie. The genre is loosely identified as mysteries which contain no explicit sex, or excessive gore or violence.” Malice was founded largely due to the efforts of our own Barbara Mertz, as well as of devoted “cozy” mysteries fan Mary Morman, and a devoted cadre of fans who continue to be the heart of Malice to this day.
In a bittersweet moment of celebration, Malice Domestic awarded Joan Hess a posthumous Amelia Award for her work on Painted Queen. Joan’s daughter Becca accepted the award for her mother, with support on the podium from Barbara’s daughter Beth. Coached by ParnellHall, a good friend of both of their mothers, Becca and Beth noted that while Barbara had worked to organize Malice, Joan had done her best to upend the proceedings with her pranks.
Looking around the room at so many women writers who were being recognized at Malice was moving, remembering Barbara’s hope that the organization could serve to “level the playing field” at a time when the genre associated more with male mystery writers was more likely to win respect and accolades.
The award also highlighted a tradition of mutual support among Malice authors and fans that went back to the beginning of the organization. The Amelia Award itself was a wonderful way of honoring both Barbara and her signal heroine, Amelia Peabody, both of whom were known to offer help to almost everyone they ran across (whether that help had been asked for, or not!). Awarding the Amelia to Joan Hess, an accomplished mystery writer and legendary leader in humor both on and off the page, highlighted her generous spirit and the friendship that supported Barbara through (and past) her final days. The event was very much in the spirit of feminist — and human — kindness that was part of the founding of Malice, while never forgetting to add some whimsy and laughter.
STAY TUNED FOR OUR NEXT POST, presaging some of the plans now in the works for MALICE 35 — at which Barbara will be honored. Today, Malice designates this kind of honor as “Malice Remembers,” but Barbara would have no trouble at all using the older designation “Ghost of Honor.” (Uh-oh!) If you live in the DC area and want to attend, you can register HERE
V. “One of the most exciting developments in mystery writing over the past decade has been the broadening of its boundaries and the breakdown of formerly rigid categories.”
Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
After the surge of cozies in the early 1990s, the pendulum swung back the other way for a bit.
“There was this real fluorescence of women writers, and publishers – as usual – it kind of got out of control,” James said. “They published way too many and eventually by the late 1990s, there was a correction in the market.”
Still, from the 1990s to the present, Malice has continued to grow in popularity. “From the beginning, it certainly seemed to fill a need, and has thrived,” Stashower said.
And in the process, Malice has expanded its definition of what constitutes an Agatha Award-worthy book, to the point where Foxwell said it became almost indistinguishable from Bouchercon. Last year, the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel went to Ann Cleeves for “The Long Call.” The novel is dark detective fiction – a mystery for sure, but not exactly a cozy.
“In the early years, we were always careful with that definition, so we would have a unique identity,” Foxwell said.
Meanwhile, the publishing industry has heeded Malice’s call to publish traditional mysteries in greater numbers. By 2018, publishers like Kensington, Crooked Lane Books and Sourcebooks were reviving cherished cozy mystery series and releasing new ones, as author Amanda Flower noted in Publishers Weekly. Berkley also has widened its selection of mysteries. Authors like Ellery Adams and Kate Kingsbury have risen to popularity amid the cozy mystery publishing renaissance.
And by 2020, Kirkus Reviews had even run a defense of cozy mysteries. It argued that “once you agree that crime fiction is literature, then slotting cozies into a lesser category feels arbitrary and quite likely based on gendered, dated, or unexamined notions.”
“What I hear a lot, especially during this pandemic, [is] people have run like crazy to cozies, to Golden Age mysteries,” Foxwell said. “They’re comforting, they’re reassuring – they’re a formula, sure – I have really seen people stampeding like crazy to cozies.”
The notion that traditional mysteries are the red-headed stepchild of the publishing industry has now been broadly challenged. But the question remains: did Malice change the industry, or did the industry change Malice?
“I think in some ways Malice was a victim of its own success,” James said. As the convention became profitable, organizers could afford to bring in more high-profile authors and pay their way. And they eventually ran out of traditional mystery writers to honor, so they started to look outside of the subgenre.
“I mean, I love Sara Paretsky to death, I think she’s a tremendous writer – no one has more passion for what she does than Sara – but Sara’s not Malice Domestic, and she would tell you that,” James explained. “And they gave Sara a lifetime achievement award. And Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman and Dick Francis – those are not traditional mystery writers. They’re all terrific writers, but they didn’t belong at Malice. When that started happening, I thought ‘Malice has changed.’”
Morman said the convention grew more formal over time. Convention organizers also raised the cost of membership from $25, which is what it cost in the early years.
And for all the positive publicity that traditional mysteries have received in recent years, they still lag the darker fare in industry recognition.
“In terms of awards, still these days, you don’t see very many traditional mysteries being nominated for Edgars,” Foxwell said. “The Edgars still have shall we say a bias toward the darker, the thriller, the ‘serious’ book.”
Indeed, the fact that cozies still need to be defended suggests that Malice has yet to fully achieve its original aims.
“Barbara really did put her imprint on it, although I don’t think that she really has ever gotten full credit, because they still think these books are – you know, anything written by women for women can’t really be good and serious,” James said. “But kudos to Barbara, because our genre of books ‘don’t get no respect,’ as Henny Youngman used to say.”
And in the meantime, the mystery world, like the rest of publishing, has been transformed by the growth of the Internet and the rise of self-published writers.
“Things are different today,” Stashower said. “There is still of course the traditional publishing path, but there are other [avenues]. In the same way that the music industry has diversified, there are other ways to put books out there. Obviously, there’s self-publishing, there are small independent publishers, there is all kinds of stuff happening online. It’s a very different landscape now.”
Still, Malice has become one of the crucial stops for denizens of the mystery scene, whether their novels are traditional mysteries or more hardboiled fare.
Stashower said Malice today is “energizing, because there are so many people who are coming into the community” these days. And the convention is more popular than ever.
IV. “It is now  one of the big events of the mystery year, and the Agatha is one of the most coveted of mystery awards.”
Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I” [Photo: Charlotte MacLeod, Barbara Mertz, Patricia Moyes, and Sarah Caudwell]
Malice’s heyday arguably corresponded with a boom in traditional and cozy mystery books in the 1990s.
“Into the early ’90s, there was a sudden flourishing of women writers,” Dean James said. “Publishers became aware that there were women out there who were looking for something besides the… loner private eye, the divorced police detective and all that kind of stuff.”
“Barbara really was at the leading edge,” he added. “She deserves real credit for that.”
As for Malice, it grew and grew. In 1992, Malice incorporated as a nonprofit. Since then, a volunteer board of directors has run the convention.
The event itself recovered from that disastrous first year and went on to become a popular and (mostly) smoothly run convention.
“After the first year, we knew we needed a new hotel, no question,” said Elizabeth Foxwell. “So we went to Bethesda… We were at the Bethesda Hyatt for a long time. And we were one of their top clients. The liquor sales were huge, to the point where one year the hotel actually ran out of liquor. So the Bethesda Hyatt really loved us.”
Malice organizers finally had to leave their beloved hotel in Bethesda after eight or nine years because the ballroom couldn’t fit all the people who wanted to come. So they moved into D.C. But the hijinks continued there.
Foxwell said Peters was a sort of godmother figure at Malice. “Through her presence, through bringing her friends in, through staging some wacky occurrences throughout the convention, she helped create the culture,” she recalled. “When Barbara was around, there were always some shenanigans.”
One example cited by several Malice attendees was the time Dan Stashower, Edgar Award-winning author of “Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle,” among other books, handcuffed himself to British mystery writer Penny Moyes.
“When I got there, I had no idea about what it would be like or what I would find,” Stashower said of attending the convention early on. “But right away I was meeting people like [Peters], Sarah Caudwell, Penny Moyes, Joan Hess, and people like that.”
Hess was reportedly behind many of the shenanigans along with Peters. Soon enough, Hess was recruiting Stashower to participate in some of her more outlandish stunts, including the handcuffing incident.
“[Hess] thought it would be funny if we were pretending that we were all squabbling with each other,” Stashower recalled. “And somehow it got from there to me handcuffing myself to Penny Moyes. At a remove of more than 20 years, I no longer remember how I got there. But I remain grateful that Penny Moyes, this figure of legend, took it in good humor when I came out into the audience and handcuffed myself to her wrist. And somehow, I dragged her onto the stage… and then started doing a bit where I’d raise my hand, and then her hand went up.”
Moyes handled it in stride, laughing and cracking jokes as they went along. And as Hess had promised, it turned out to be quite funny.
“I felt like I had found my tribe,” Stashower said.
Then there was the time when Hess, Sharyn McCrumb, Dorothy Cannell, and Margaret Maron decided to give out the W(h)imsey Award for comedy in mystery. (Lord Peter Wimsey is the hero of a series of mystery novels by Dorothy L. Sayers.) The award was a stuffed muskrat in a skirt and hat.
“And they called out the nominees, and the nominees were themselves, and then they said, ‘And the winner is – Sarah Caudwell,’” James recounted. “And then Sarah stood up, and there was this gabbling, and she comes up to the stage, and she was so excited. She tried to take it home with her. And the customs people didn’t want to let her. She eventually had her way, and that thing is somewhere in England, I guess.”
The convention was a success, no question about it. And many of the attendees forged memories that they cherish to this day.
But even then, critical acclaim remained elusive. The same year that Peters dubbed the Agatha the “most coveted” mystery award, the New York Times declared, “One would like to think that our best authors are immune to the relaxation of technical skills that the cozy mystery has made possible.” The Gray Lady charged cozy mystery writers with an “aversion to plotting” and went on to praise hardboiled authors and mystery writers outside Malice’s purview.
“There are people out there who still denigrate the cozy and the traditional mystery, who feel like the only good mystery is a hardboiled mystery or something that is extremely dark,” Foxwell said.
Contrary to suggestions otherwise by the Times, Mary Morman noted, Malice has never been an advocacy organization. It began as an appreciation society but became a forum for industry workshops over the years.
III. “And it has been fun, though there were times that first nerve-wracking year when some of us wondered whether we had rocks for brains.”
Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
The first year of Malice was a blur of mishaps and unforeseen problems.
The food was inedible. The tea was served in Styrofoam cups. The maids left little notes in some rooms asking people to clean the rooms themselves.
The convention drew about 350 people initially. By comparison, Bouchercon was drawing around 1,500 people at the time.
“There always was the feeling that we didn’t want it as big as Bouchercon,” Elizabeth Foxwell said. We wanted it sort of small and intimate. There was always some tension about how big do we want it. More and more people wanted to come, and yet we didn’t want it to be this gigantic convention center event.”
As they launched the convention, the Agatha Committee was still figuring out what type of book deserved an Agatha Award.
“We kind of made up some of the rules as we went along, in terms of the Agathas,” said Dean James. “Because when you’re starting at the very beginning, people are not really sure what’s going on.”
“We got some very bizarre nominations that first year for totally inappropriate writers,” he added. “You know, like Sue Grafton and some of the hardboiled stuff. So we went from there and people began to be more aware of what the point was.”
As for the hotel, it was nothing if not memorable.
“That was a horrible hotel,” Mary Morman said. “It was so bad that it was really funny. We only saw before the convention the best of the rooms. They had two or three floors full of rooms that were okay, one floor that was quite nice and three floors of rooms that didn’t even have hot water… I still have somewhere the note from a chambermaid saying, ‘Please clean the room before you leave.’”
But everyone pulled together and enjoyed themselves in spite of their surroundings. And the hotel became a conversation piece for guests at the convention.
“It was really interesting, because once Barbara was talking to Mary Higgins Clark about how bad the first Malice hotel was,” Foxwell recalled. “And Mary said, ‘Oh no, it’s very important to keep the price low, so people can come.’ Mary was all about how you make it affordable for people to come.”
And thus the sense of camaraderie overpowered the hotel’s downsides, even in that first year. Longtime Malice attendees speak fondly of the serendipitous conversations, pranks and general merriment to be had at Malice.
Foxwell said one highlight of Malice was the sorts of conversations people had in the bar at midnight. “People would say so many times, ‘I didn’t know there were other people out there who read what I like to read,’” she said. “And so, you would hear conversations like, ‘Oh, have you read this author? Oh, you need to try this book!’ Those sorts of wonderful types of conversations.”
II. “I was strongly in favor of a convention honoring the traditional mystery, for it seemed to me that this part of the genre had not received the respect it deserved… Critics tended to dismiss such books as ‘froth,’ awards committees considered them frivolous and unrealistic, and publishers weren’t publishing them in sufficient numbers.”
Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
In Malice’s formative years, the traditional mysteries – often, though not exclusively, written by women – were getting short shrift, not only from the big awards committees, but from publishers and critics as well.
The critics were not always kind to Peters herself. In 1988, Peters had released “Deeds of the Disturber,” an Amelia Peabody mystery set in London. Kirkus Reviews said the “bizarre plot” lacked “credibility,” adding, “Amelia’s ever-increasing smugness is getting to be a bit of a bore.”
And traditional mysteries had never featured heavily in the history of the Edgar Awards, widely considered the most prestigious mystery awards, author Dean James said. Cozies in particular came in for special disdain within the industry.
“The convention started out of [Peters being] very disturbed by the fact that essentially mysteries by women were not being recognized with award nominations or awards,” author and mystery fan Elizabeth Foxwell said. “[She] was really appalled at the situation. What tended to get the awards and the recognition were hardboiled works, which mostly were written by men. Cozies… were often sort of slapped around and regarded very dismissively, perhaps because they’re usually written by women.”
So in 1988, Peters and her small band of collaborators began to divvy up tasks. Peters quickly took to sorting mail and writing to all her author friends, including Mary Higgins Clark, to get them to come.
“What started out as a fan convention – for mystery fans with a few writers – very quickly became a convention of writers,” co-founder Mary Morman recalled. “We just put out notices, and Barbara wrote all her friends, and they sent us money. It was absolutely amazing.”
Peters was deeply involved in Malice’s launch. She took on many of the more tedious tasks herself.
“Barbara was doing nitty gritty things for Malice such as going to the post office box, picking up the checks and registering people,” Foxwell said.
It was quite the undertaking. But Peters hosted meetings at her old Maryland farmhouse, and the whole crew sat at her wooden kitchen table, eating her famous soup, as cats prowled the stone floors beneath them. And slowly, the convention began to take shape.
“As I got to know Barbara better, I knew that when Barbara was determined to do something, it was going to get done,” James recalled. “She was a force of nature in so many ways.”
James and Morman had corresponded. Eventually, she told him to introduce himself to Peters at an International Crime Writers’ Congress meeting in New York. James did, and that was the beginning of his involvement in Malice.
They put him in charge of the Agatha Committee as soon as they decided to give out the awards. There were three committee members total.
“I was the chair of the Agatha Committee for the first three years,” James recalled. “And I served two more years after that as a member of the committee.”
The first Malice convention took place in 1989, with the first Agatha Award for Best Novel going to Carolyn G. Hart for her 1988 mystery “Something Wicked.”
There were four original categories for Agathas: Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Short Story and Best Nonfiction. Since then, Malice has added several categories.
They deliberately named the Agathas for a woman, noting that all the major mystery awards were named for men. Foxwell said she believed Peters had it in her mind all along to honor Christie by naming the award after her.
Foxwell herself got roped into joining that original group when she went to a book signing in Georgetown. It was a different era in many ways, when networking happened face-to-face rather than over Zoom.
“There was no way to get together and talk to people, unless you came to a convention or you had a local mystery club, perhaps,” Morman said. “But so much that we do now online you simply could not do.”
“I’m proud to have been one of the founders of Malice Domestic, for I believe it is achieving the objects I hoped for in the beginning—greater respect for the genre, greater financial and critical success for the practitioners thereof… and a lot of fun.”
Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
To understand the appeal of the Malice Domestic mystery convention, it helps to know what the publishing industry was like for traditional mystery writers around the time that Malice began.
The year was 1989. Authors like Dean R. Koontz, Tom Clancy and Elmore Leonard were topping the New York Times Best Seller List. Thrillers with a dash of horror and spy novels were the order of the day.
Bouchercon – short for the Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention – was the primary mystery convention on the scene. The organizers of Bouchercon presented their first annual Anthony Awards in 1986.
The awards were named for Anthony Boucher, a mystery author and a critic for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. His books featured supernatural elements and science fiction themes. He died in 1968.
In 1989, the Anthony Award for Best Novel went to Thomas Harris for “The Silence of the Lambs.” The novel famously involves both a gruesome serial killer and a psychopath who ate his victims. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a tour de force of suspense, dark and polished as onyx.”
Even the Edgar Awards, presented by the New York-based Mystery Writers of America, were hewing to those trends. In 1989, the Edgar for Best Novel went to the hardboiled Cold War mystery “A Cold Red Sunrise” by Stuart M. Kaminsky.
But what about lighter fare? Books that abstained from gore and raunch in favor of the intellectual puzzles pioneered by writers like Agatha Christie?
It was in that atmosphere that a small band of mystery aficionados hatched a plan to launch their own convention and dispense their own award.
The convention came to be called Malice Domestic, so named for the personal nature of the crimes in their preferred mysteries (no serial killers, terrorists or hit men). And the Malice Domestic award was christened the Agatha, after mystery doyen Agatha Christie.
Spearheading that small group – it was anywhere from five to eight people at first – was Elizabeth Peters, a.k.a. Barbara Mertz, best known for her Amelia Peabody mysteries.
Mary Morman, author of the Friends of Elizabeth Peters newsletter, brought together the group that launched Malice. Peters credited her with the idea for the convention. Morman later said that she just wanted to make Peters happy.
“There were many people who were not interested in those [hardboiled] kinds of mysteries and didn’t like the fact that people who liked different kinds of mysteries were talked down to,” Morman explained. “It was a matter of respect.”
Peters was adamant that the world needed a forum to celebrate the traditional mystery. Moreover, as she noted in the foreword to Malice Domestic’s first anthology, Malice Domestic was not just for cozies. The convention “celebrates the traditional mystery in all its forms,” she wrote. “These forms are diverse and nonexclusive.”
Cozies are mystery novels that omit graphic sex and violence and typically feature an amateur sleuth. They traditionally take place in a small village. And the detective is often, though not always, female.
“So many writers who write books like I write are not taken seriously,” said New York Times bestselling author Miranda James, a.k.a. Dean James. “And Barbara understood that, and she was determined to do something about it.”
So Malice became a forum for cozies and other types of the often overlooked and maligned traditional mystery novel. And Peters and her merry band of enthusiasts overcame long odds to bring the convention to fruition.
“Part of her feeling about starting this convention was that cozies, or traditional mysteries, are often in a lighter vein,” Agatha Award-winning writer and longtime Malice attendee Elizabeth Foxwell said. “One of her tenets was that this is a legitimate form of literature. People enjoy it. We should recognize it. And why isn’t it recognized?”
Seven years after Barbara’s death, it is amazing to witness how lively the interest remains in her writings and characters. Anyone missing her can tune into many corners of social media to join in discussions of her books, characters, and the lore surrounding them (including “fancasts” filled with suggestions of actors and actresses to play the parts of our favorite Mertz-Peters-Michaels characters). (Still no suggestions on Gargery, strangely enough….) On this, her birthday, we celebrate Barbara from her beginning in downstate Illinois through her amazing life. She so enjoyed the “small” things, watching hummingbirds, sitting with her cats (thinking of how she would kill off the next victim in her current mystery). Things like that. Let’s lift a glass to MPM!
WilliamJoy is one of the most positive, behind-the-scenes forces in Egyptology today. He is a skilled archivist and a first-rate scholar in his own right, and is unceasingly generous with his time, knowledge, and expertise, particularly in the history of some of the earliest Egyptologists. I suspect that there is no one in the world who knows more about 19th century writer and Egyptologist Amelia B. Edwards than William, or is more enthusiastic about her. His knowledge is extraordinary.
As many of you know, Amelia Edwards provided some of the inspiration for our own Amelia Peabody. Here is a picture of Edwards, along with a letter she wrote, both of which hung in Barbara’s hall for many years. Now they hang in the Barbara Mertz Bioarchaeology Lab at the British Museum.
William wrote to us about Amelia Edwards after noticing a post on Twitter by avid Amelia fan Christina Startt. He also sent the beautiful pictures of covers of Amelia Edwards’ books seen at top and bottom.
FROM WILLIAM JOY:
While I was on Twitter, I noticed a tweet by Christina Startt with a photo of her copy of Amelia B. Edwards’ “A Thousand Miles Up The Nile.” I could have said something about it, but I honestly don’t know how in the single short sentence that Twitter provides! So here is more than you probably ever wanted to know about Amelia’s most famous book.
The cover of her paperbound book is a reproduction of the second edition of Amelia’s work, which first appeared at the close of the year 1888 — just in time for Christmas of that year. These copies actually bear dates of “1889,” which was a standard practice for English publishers. They felt if the Christmas shoppers of 1888 saw a book with the date “1889,” they would know instantly that it was “new,” and therefore, be more encouraged to purchase it. Experience showed Victorian publishers that “old” books at Christmas time were never quite the big sellers that “new” ones were.
These copies of Amelia’s second edition were issued in varying base cloth colors. Christina’s is dark blue, but there were also red, green, tan, light blue… a veritable rainbow of colors. But the design was the same on each of them: patterned after one of the author’s paintings inside the book.
Years ago, when I first noticed some of these, I thought they might be similar to American books of the same time (notably titles by Mark Twain), in that printing houses, when running out of a standard color cloth for a book, would just switch to whatever other color happened to be on hand, and continue the production.
But no, that was not the case here. These books were purposely issued in variant colors — depending on the “color” and “mood” of your library, and where you were going to display the book — so the customer had a choice as to which would “look best” when they got the book home.
One other Egyptology travel book, also by a woman, was like this: “Vom Nil” by Victoria, the Crown Princess of Sweden, which featured her photographs taken in Egypt in 1889 and 1890. It was issued in about six different color bindings. Speaking of Sweden, I recently sent a copy of “The Painted Queen” to Carolin Johansson, a professional Egyptologist based in Uppsala, Sweden, and she loves it! Well, who doesn’t? I sure did!
One more thing regarding “A Thousand Miles Up The Nile.” The first edition appeared in 1877 as a much larger and heavier quarto-sized volume than the second edition, a smaller octavo-sized book. It had thick bevel-edged boards. Copies of the first edition were usually covered with a red cloth cover, which had black and gold stamping on the upper board and spine, in Egyptian-style designs (though a few copies are known with a cream cloth; more on those in a moment). We have a copy of the red first edition that Amelia used for editing purposes, not long before the second edition appeared. She used a pencil to cross out words and experimented by writing in synonyms; she also added footnotes along the margins.
We thought that a significant copy. But just recently I was alerted by Julian Mackenzie of Shapero Rare Books in London to something even more extraordinary. They obtained (and sold to us) another copy of the first edition, which has something no other copy has… and moreover, which no other Egyptology book of its time has, as far as we know. And that is a publisher-issued paper dust jacket, made in 1877, intended to be used for the first edition, with the printed title and author’s name on the front cover, and fold-over flaps and everything — just like a modern dust jacket. I have not made photographs of this yet, but it is real, and it is complete, and yes, we are simply astonished over it. Dust jackets, you see, are early 20th-century items; they generally don’t exist for books from the nineteenth century.
One thing, though: there is, for perhaps every 10 copies of the red first edition of Amelia’s book, one cream color copy. And as this newly discovered dust-jacketed copy is of the scarcer cream variety, it is possible that the dust jackets were made only for the cream-colored copies. Both the cream and red varieties bear the same binder’s ticket on the rear pastedown (Westleys & Company, of London).